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Published in CenterView on March 12, 2012

UMMC biochemist deploys 'weaponized curry' in battle against cancer

By Jack Mazurak

As newly recruited cancer researcher Dr. Radhika Pochampally outfits her tumor-fighting headquarters at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, she'll unpack some leading-edge gear.


Bioengineered nanoparticles? Check.

Mesenchymal stem cells? Ready and waiting.

Colonies of genetically altered mice? Standing by.

Curcumin, a spice common to kitchens worldwide? 

Wait, what?

Make that leading-edge gear and a centuries-old remedy with a new twist.

In January, Pochampally started on the School of Medicine's biochemistry faculty as an associate professor, and joined the UMMC Cancer Institute. She's in the middle of moving her life, family and research from New Orleans, where she spent the past six years on faculty at Tulane University.

Her research looks at how a specialized delivery system might carry cancer therapies to breast and bone tumors. She assembled that rather complex strategy from distinct parts of her career. 

Pochampally completed her classwork for a doctoral degree in cancer biology at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. Moving to Florida, she completed her clinical training at Moffitt Cancer in Tampa, where she focused on tumor-suppressive genes. During a post-doctoral fellowship at Tulane, she got experience in stem cell biology. 

Those two parts joined in her current research.

"In being an independent investigator I really found that bringing together stem cell biology and genetics is promising and it's where I want to put my effort," Pochampally said.

Then there's curcumin, active ingredient in the orange-hued spice turmeric, a perennial part of curry powder and chemical celebrated for centuries for its multifaceted medicinal qualities. 

Pochampally worked with biochemical engineers at Tulane to generate curcumin containing liposomal nanoparticles. They came up with a formulation especially adept at piercing bony tumors: weaponized curry. 

"Curcumin has been shown to be cytotoxic to tumor cells," she said. "Our delivery method works pretty well at this point. But it's unknown how well it works in osteosarcomas."

Osteosarcoma is a type of cancer that develops in the long bones, typically in children and adolescents. It's fairly rare, hard to get at and difficult to grow in culture, making lab work more challenging for researchers.

Despite the obstacles, the fight is personal for Pochampally. She launched her career into cancer research after a loved one developed cancer. 

Her method of attacking cancer aims the curcumin-based delivery system at stromal cells, the supporting tissue that helps cancer cells replicate.

"If cancer cells are seeds, this is like targeting the soil that supports them and allows them to grow," she said. "Take away the soil, and the seeds will not grow."

To do that, her lab will use mesenchymal stem cells, known as MSCs, which are isolated from bone marrow cells. MSCs have the power to differentiate into many different types of cells, including really juicy stromal cells, particularly enticing to cancer.

In studies at the Medical Center, Pochampally plans to inject specialized mice with MSCs and osteosarcoma cells. Once tumors establish, researchers in her lab will inject the mice with curcumin nanoparticles and see how well the delivery system permeates the bony tumors and supportive cells.

Pochampally wants to eventually use the delivery system like a spice caravan. Curcumin nanoparticles will shoulder bits of potentially cancer-suppressing genes, known as microRNA, through the bloodstream and into tumors. The microRNA would scramble coding and messaging systems in MSC-derived stromal cells, rendering them useless to the cancer cells: in effect, taking out the soil from underneath the seeds. 

If the system works in mice, she wants to further develop it for human trials. 

"We've shown it to be reasonably effective to shrink the tumors. Our idea and hope is to use these nanoparticles to deliver personalized therapy," she said.

At the moment, she's busy setting up her lab, one specialized cancer-fighting tool at a time.

"I think UMMC has a lot of potential," she said. "I'm glad for the opportunity and looking forward to pursuing research here."